Text Message from Pennsylvania
The Secret Life of a Jeff Koons Sculpture in a Town of 6,000
Courtesy Jeff Koons
Civil War siege artillery came in one of two forms: guns or mortars. Guns were designed to hit a fortification head-on, to have the effect of a battering ram. Mortars propelled shells upward, causing them to arc over a battlement and destroy the magazines, supplies, and soldiers sheltered behind. Today, both are commonly known as cannons, and these cannons are regular, public-art-like fixtures in many a civic park.
This story is about a specific Civil War cannon: the Dictator. The Dictator was a mortar of the seacoast—read: boat-sinker—variety. Though it weighed upward of 18,000 pounds, it was fixed to a flatbed railroad car by Federal soldiers who moved it along the Confederate line during the 1865 Siege of Petersburg. The Dictator fired 200-pound shells up to 3,000 yards, and to prevent the flatbed from recoiling—a hell of a lot, I imagine—the soldiers positioned the cannon on curved sections of the line. The Federals won this particular battle.
This month, the third of four replicas of a Dictator-style cannon will be cast and assembled by Clearfield Machine Company, in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Like the other three, it will be enclosed in a steel framework and collected by a New York City art-shipping company, the employees of which will give it the same white-glove treatment they would any other very valuable artwork. They will do this because the Dictator, a functioning siege weapon, is a sculpture by Jeff Koons.
One of Koons's four Dictators left Clearfield last fall to appear in a group show, Landscape Revisited, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Vogue copresented the exhibition, and the magazine ran a breathless, information-thin story on the project in its November 2009 issue. A Vogue writer also blogged about the opening, using the language of a society column ("a collection of conceptual landscapes, made only more impressive—and surreal—by the presence of the artists themselves") and running the requisite photograph of Francesco and Alba Clemente looking fantastic (still) in designer duds.
Sex and desire—for people, for goods, for a surface too smooth to take hold of—is the subject matter of Koons's every tits or Popeye painting, even when it is not. He produces work at a factory volume, but contrary to basic principles of supply and demand, his auction sale prices can exceed $25 million. The artist was not available to comment for this story, but blogger Sam Jacob, covering Koons's 2006 talk at the Serpentine Pavilion in London, quoted him as saying about his stubby Dictator, "It looks castrated, but if you are around it, it's not."
But there's another part of this sculpture's life, and that part begins with a February 6 article in the Clearfield daily paper, the Progress. Under the headline "Clearfield Machine Co. ...Recreating Civil War Cannons" is a description of the historic cannon, with just a one-sentence reference to Jeff Koons in the second-to-last paragraph. My nana (my ex-step-grandmother), Ann Dotts, cut out the article and mailed it to me, picking out Koons's name from conversations over the years with me and her artist son. When I next called my nana, she outlined her efforts to learn more about the sculptures and her attempts, primarily phone calls and strategic, over-shopping-cart conversations with spouses, to convey to the newspaper and to Clearfield Machine affiliates that Koons, in his way, is an important guy, worthy of more than a second-to-last-paragraph nod.
I am from a town of 3,500. Clearfield, my mother's hometown, is the small town I know second best. My nana's struggle to give air to the entire story of the reproduction cannons speaks as much to the limited perspective of her community as it does to the limited perspective of the gallerists, curators, and other Koons-related figures who will talk about Civil War battles and about the Vogue show, while ignoring the part in the middle.
This story is about that part, the middle.
Clearfield is 150 miles from Koons's hometown of York, Pennsylvania, and 250 miles from New York. The artist found Clearfield Machinery through an intermediary, Charlie Smithgall, the former mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a respected authority on Civil War artillery, who in 2009, per Wikipedia, owned approximately 40 cannons. (Worth a browse is his 2009 reelection campaign page with the description of a fundraising event—"You'll have a BLAST"—at which one could pay to shoot a cannon, for $100, or a Gatling gun, $50.) Smithgall directed Koons's studio to Clearfield Machine, an all-purpose machine company responsible for some of Smithgall's cannons and the exact number of industrial mixers and grinders a machine company can produce in a 100-year career.
Clearfield, population 6,000, incorporated as a borough in 1840. Like many little towns, it grew in leaps and starts until its post–World War II renaissance, when the local (and national) economy exploded and the standard of living became Norman Rockwell meets Benny Goodman. And then, over the past 40 years, this life eroded. Factories closed, a Wal-Mart opened, and the moms-and-pops went out of business. The young people have left town. Their parents and grandparents remain; the town, all things considered, has been good to them.
Clearfield is the sort of town where people know what kind of man you are—if you are a rich man or a civic-minded man or a no-good drunk. My grandfather, Robert Dotts, ran a Ford dealership here, participated in the business of the town, and flirted good-naturedly with every waitress who ever served him a meal or coffee, ever. When he died last month, 150 people came to his memorial service and his friends at the Elks enshrined the lunch-table chair he'd sat in for decades.
This way of knowing a man is born of proximity and repetition, of the sort of business practice where goods are exchanged for goods within a closed and basic value system. Here there are none of the abstracted and symbolic values of the art market, or the complex push and pull of the various networks of art makers, dealers, and collectors. When I told Pete Vandewater at Clearfield Machine about my relationship to the Dotts family, he immediately and frankly noted that my grandfather had been a good man.
There was a similar assuredness in Vandewater's equally positive assessment of Koons, an acknowledgement of a basic accord between two people working together to solve a problem—far afield from the typically ironic or gushing takes on the famous artist that I hardly pause to read anymore. Vandewater, the artist's contact at Clearfield Machine, is honored by the opportunity to work with someone who is a leader in his field, something that Koons undeniably is, though he's often demonized for having too large a studio staff or for pushing his practice to the point of caricature. And Vandewater has enjoyed all he's learned: Evident in his description of the meticulousness of Koons and his staff is an appreciation for the artist's accuracy and attention to detail. The original Dictator—though very large and very key to a battle—has somehow gone missing, so the studio exhaustively searched for and documented existing seacoast mortars in order to commission the replicas.
I was happy to hear that Koons visited Clearfield, that he did not manage the entire project through assistants and from afar. In Clearfield, and elsewhere, this is how a good man does business. (Artists working in large scale or with industrial materials rely on people like Vandewater. And Vandewater, who figured out how to cast Dictator from old drawings and photographs, is about as creative and magnanimous as they come.) In a small way, Koons is importing energy into a town badly in need of moxie and fresh perspectives. This energy is a lot like the one-two punch of gentrification: money in the form of fees paid to Clearfield Machine, and culture in the form of the Dictator (a Civil War/contemporary art/phallus mashup). But in Clearfield's case, the effect is not necessarily transformative. It's ephemeral. It's about conversations in the checkout line—what the middle part of the story is to the people living in the middle.